Early Birds

Flying Saucers 1947: Chapter Three

By the time US Army Air Force Intelligence Officers Captain William Lee Davidson and First Lieutenant Frank Mercer Brown met Kenneth Arnold on July 12, the great Flying Saucer wave of 1947 was in full swing. The daily papers featured saucer sighting stories, some spurious and some serious. The Air Force was particularly interested in sightings reported by what they considered to be credible and qualified observers—people with military experience, people familiar with aircraft, scientists, and meteorologists. Sightings which reportedly occurred on or before June 24 carried additional potential to corroborate Arnold’s sighting or possibly reveal details which might explain the origins of the phenomenon. According to, Edward J. Ruppelt, onetime head of Project Blue Book, the Project Sign “Estimate of the Situation” pointed out that “reports hadn’t actually started with the Arnold Incident. Belated reports from a weather observer in Richmond, Virginia, who observed a ‘silver disk’ through his theodolite telescope; and F-47 pilot and three pilots in his formation who saw a ‘silver flying wing,’ and the English ‘ghost airplanes’ that had been picked up on radar early in 1947 proved this point.”[1]

The Balloon Man

Richmond, Virginia, April 1947

When Davidson and Brown interviewed Kenneth Arnold, they told him that he was not the first to have seen the phenomena. They had in their possession reports of other sightings, some from as early as April of that year. Thanks to the Air Force’s Project Blue Book files, we can examine the April case that Davidson and Brown had in mind, a case also referenced in the “Estimate of the Situation.”

In the late 1940s, atmospheric researchers routinely released big, high-altitude balloons. The balloons carried aloft instrumentation that could measure atmospheric pressure, temperature, and humidity. Researchers also tracked the balloons to obtain data on wind direction and speed. At the same time, the Navy launched enormous Skyhook balloons to gather various forms of data, and under the codename Project Mogul, the US Air Force was launching balloons outfitted with sensitive microphones tuned to detect the sound waves of Soviet atomic bomb tests. High altitude balloons like weather balloons, atmospheric research balloons, and military balloons have often been responsible for reports of unidentified flying objects. They appear on radars, hover on the horizon, or soar out of sight. They silently scurry along with the clouds. When viewed from the ground, and even from the air, their huge elongated shapes appear strange and alien. Their white and foil surfaces can reflect the sunlight, drawing attention from observers as they mysteriously pass overhead. At night, the illumination of lighted equipment has drawn attention from ground observers and pilots. For all these reasons, atmospheric balloons have often been misidentified and triggered false alarms.

In even more cases, balloons have been blamed, even when the details of the sighting cannot be correlated with a mis-identified balloon. Government investigators, scientists, and public officials charged with the duty of identifying an otherwise unidentified flying object have heavily relied upon the balloon explanation. It’s a favorite way to spuriously explain away the explainable. For example, RAF officials dismissed the X Raiders that violated British airspace in January 1947 as stray weather balloons, an explanation which does not satisfy the facts of the case.[2] Even the military might mistake high altitude balloon for an unknown aircraft. After the Roswell Army Air Field initially reported the recovery of a crashed “flying disc” in July of 1947, the Air Force quickly revised the report, claiming that they had merely mistaken the debris from a crashed weather balloon. In 1994, the Air Force changed the story again, claiming that the debris more-likely belonged to one of the top-secret Project Mogul balloons—hence the veil of secrecy.

United States Weather Bureau meteorologist Walter A. Minozewski had plenty of experience with balloons. He was the type of person that the military referred to as a competent observer. He made his living by observing balloons and was not likely to be fooled by the appearance of a weather balloon. Minozewski was responsible for launching “Piball” weather balloons (short for “Pilot Ball”) from the Richmond, Virginia weather station. By tracking the flight of his Pi Ball balloons through a theodolite (a type of rotating telescope used for surveying and measuring horizontal and vertical angles which magnified objects 25 times), he could report wind speed and direction.

TheodoliteOn a clear morning in April 1947, Minozewski and his assistants released a balloon and watched it ascend. When it reached 15,000 feet, they caught sight of another object moving below the balloon. Minozewski peered through the lens of the theodolite and saw a large metallic disc-shaped object flying just below the balloon. Minozewski and his colleagues tracked the flight of the disk for fifteen seconds as it headed westward at high speed, finally vanishing in the distance.

He saw a large metallic disc-shaped object flying just below the balloon

Twenty years after the incident, atmospheric physicist James McDonald reviewed the case. McDonald had been studying UFOs for several years, and by 1967, he had a national reputation as one of the few legitimate scientists to take the phenomena seriously. McDonald would have found this case particularly intriguing because Minozewski was a trained observer and credible witness, and someone in the same field of study as McDonald. Moreover, McDonald had a colleague who had experienced a similar sighting through a theodolite while tracking a balloon launch at White Sands in 1949, and Ruppelt reported several similar cases from the people at General Mills responsible for monitoring balloon launches.

Although twenty years had elapsed since the incident, McDonald decided to track Minozewski down and conduct a long-distance phone interview. The retired weather man was surprised to receive the phone call and even more surprised to hear that McDonald had learned about the incident while reviewing the Project Blue Book files at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. (Project Blue Book was the Air Force’s official designation for its study of Unidentified Flying Objects from 1952 until 1970.) Minozewski wanted to know how the government knew about his story and why his name was in their files. “Minczewski [sic] emphasized that he had never reported it to other than his Weather Bureau superiors and hence was surprised to be called about it twenty years later,” McDonald wrote.[3]

He saw a whitish, silvery disc-like object, larger than the balloon and flat on the bottom … it had some type of dome on its upper side.

Despite the passage of two decades, Minozewski could still vividly describe the whitish, silvery disc-like object he had seen. He described it as larger than the balloon and flat on the bottom. When he observed the object through the theodolite, he could see that it had some type of dome on its upper side.[4]

The mystery of how the government had learned of the story was not resolved until the UFO Research Coalition obtained a non-redacted copy of the Project Blue Book Microfilm Files from the US National Archives in 1998.[5] The new information reveals that in July of 1947, at the height of the 1947 UFO wave, Minozewski’s superior at the Weather Bureau took it upon himself to send the government a report about the sighting. The newly revealed version of the Blue Book file contains the original letter from Minozewski’s superior, George Wright. In 1967, McDonald did not have access to this original version of the file, so he could not explain to Minozewski how the government had learned about the story.

To: Mr. Moxom, Region Office

From: Mr. Wright, Richmond, Va.

Subject: “Flying Disks”

Date: 7/14/47

We hesitate to make this report concerning our pilot balloon observations in regards to a flying disk because of the considerable national skepticism regarding the subject at present. However, local newspapers inform us that the U.S. Government admits no authority for such a ship or object or its flights. Then we must assume this strange object to be foreign. Therefore, we submit this report for your information. If sighted again, we wonder if it would be a good idea to drop the balloon and instead make observations on this disk.

Mr. Minozewski has observed this strange metallic disk on three occasions through the theodolite while making his pibal observation during the last six months. Miss Baron has reported observing it on one occasion. Miss Baron’s report agrees with Mr. Minozewski’s observations except as to the color, which she reported as a dull metallic luster.

Mr. Minozewski last observed this disk in April 1947 at the 1100E Pibal Observation when the balloon was at 15 thousand feet. The disk was followed for 15 seconds, apparently moving on level flight from east to west to the far north of the station. The object was a metallic like chrome, shaped something like an ellipse with a flat level bottom and dome like-round top. The disk appeared below the balloon, was much larger in size in the instrument, and shined like silver. It was impossible to estimate the height or speed of the disk except that it appeared to be moving rather rapidly. Miss Baron observed the disk when her balloon was about 27 thousand feet. All days observed were either clear or with very few clouds and good visibility.

Very truly Yours,

George A. Wright

The letter became part of the collection of government UFO documents inherited by Project Blue Book. Several facts about the case make Minozewski’s report especially convincing. Minozewski was a professional observer using professional scientific equipment to make his observation, not someone likely to mistake a conventional craft or object. He had no motive for filing a false report with the Weather Bureau, and he was in the presence of colleagues at the time of the sighting. Far from publicity-seeking, Minozewski told no one but his superiors about the sighting, and the existence of a government file about his case bewildered him. The craft Minozewski described conforms in all its particulars to the type of vehicles sighted all over the nation in 1947, but he made his observation and reported the sighting months before the June 24, 1947 incident initiated the national news stories which have been blamed for inspiring copycats, hoaxers, mass delusions and mass hysteria. His description of the craft predates those that would later appear in newspapers. The April 1947 sighting was not the first time Minozewski had seen the disc. In prior months, while making the same balloon observation, he had twice seen the same object poking around his weather balloons. The April sighting gave him a closer look at the object he had seen twice already. Most astonishing of all, Minozewski was not the only weather balloon observer at the station to have the encounter. An employee named Miss Baron had independently described sighting the same phenomenon at 27,000 feet.

Minozewski was not the only weather balloon observer at the station to have the encounter.

The Air Force listed the sighting as “unidentified,” a status that the officers who managed Project Blue Book were reluctant to concede. The file concludes with the following summary opinions:

There is no readily apparent explanation … there is no astronomical explanation for this incident, which, however, deserved considerable attention, because of the experience of the observers and the fact that the observation was made through a theodolite and that comparison could be made with a piball ballon. The observers had, therefore, a good estimate of altitude, of relative size, and of speed—much more reliable than those given in most reports. This investigator would like to recommend that these and other piball observers be quizzed as to other possible, unreported sightings.[6]

The government recommendation that “other piball observers be quizzed as to other possible, unreported sightings” would have amused McDonald. His close friend and colleague, Professor Charles Moore of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology was one of those “other piball observers” who had seen an unidentified object through a theodolite. In April 1949, Moore was in charge of a four-man crew responsible for a balloon launch at White Sands New Mexico (just south of Truth or Consequences). Not long after the launch, Moore saw a white, elliptical object in the vicinity of the balloon. He tracked it through the theodolite for more than a minute, watching it maneuver near the balloon before it travelled off toward the horizon and ultimately shot up on what appeared to be an escape vector—“as though it were going up and out,” Moore said. Moore checked with the base at White Sands to confirm that they were not conducting any flights in the vicinity or testing experimental aircraft.[7] Moore’s sighting took place two years after the Richmond Weather Bureau sightings, but it bore obvious similarities which McDonald could not have failed to notice. Edward Ruppelt’s book, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, contains similar anecdotes about trained balloon observers seeing UFOs during balloon launches at White Sands.[8]

McDonald was not the only one convinced by the Minozewski case. Long before the formation of Project Blue Book, a secret Air Intelligence Report titled “Analysis of Flying Object Incidents in the US” listed the Minozewski incident as one of the reliable sightings prior to Kenneth Arnold’s June 24 encounter with nine flying disks.[9] The government considered the sighting to be valuable because it had been made by a competent observer prior to the hysteria which seemed to grip the country after the newspapers picked up the flying saucer stories. According to Edward J. Ruppelt, onetime head of Project Blue Book, the Minozewski sighting also appeared as evidence of the extra-terrestrial hypothesis in Project Sign’s 1948 “Estimate of the Situation,” alongside reports about the X Raids and Project Charlie.[10]

Flat on His Back

June 14

The day before Davidson and Brown flew to Boise Idaho to interview Kenneth Arnold, they had been in Palm Springs looking for Richard Rankin, a man who, according to the newspapers, had also seen a formation of discs fly over his home in California on June 23, the day before Arnold’s sighting.

The newspapers actually had a few of the details wrong. Rankin’s sighting occurred on June 14, two weeks before Arnold’s sighting, not June 23.[11] Davidson and Brown learned about the sighting through a version of the news story that described Rankin as “an ex-Portlander who now lives in Palm Springs, California.” In reality, Rankin resided in Bakersfield, California and, in July of 1947, he was staying in Portland, Oregon. The misinformation sent Davidson and Brown on a flight to Palm Springs. They landed on July 10 and spent that day and the next trying to trace the man down. With the help of the Palm Springs Postmaster, they were finally able to obtain an address, but they found that Rankin had not lived at it for two years. From Palm Springs, Davidson and Brown flew back to Hamilton Field and prepared to fly out to Boise for their meeting with Palmer.

The Air Force finally caught up with Rankin in Portland, and on July 30 they interviewed him and had him submit a statement. Rankin explained that he had seen ten nearly circular aircraft flying overhead in a V-formation, with one craft straggling behind the rest. At the time, he had been  lying flat on his back, sun bathing in the front yard of his home in Bakersfield, California while a young man clipped his grass. He saw the formation pass over from south to north at what he judged to be a height of 8,500 feet and a speed of 350 miles per hour. It was 12:00 noon on June 14, 1947. The shape of the aircraft troubled him. “I couldn’t make out the number or location of their propellers and couldn’t distinguish any wings or tail. They appeared almost round,” he said.[12]

Rankin was forty-seven years old at the time, and he had been flying aircraft since he was nineteen. He started his air-career as a stunt flyer in airshows. His brother Tex was a well-known stunt flyer and flight instructor. By 1947, Richard Rankin had clocked more than 7000 hours in the air, piloting both civilian and military aircraft. Rankin could count himself among the most experienced pilots on the West Coast. Before World War II, he had a job with the US Forest Service, mapping the western United States from the air. Rankin told the Air Force, “I am well acquainted with most articles that one would see in the air … although I would not attempt to say that I am infallible.”[13] A back injury sustained in automobile accident took Rankin out of commercial flying. He made his living operating a string of motor courts and roadside stops.

When he saw the ten nearly-round objects flying over, he assumed he was witnessing a new type of military aircraft. He said as much to a boy who was mowing the lawn at the time: “I told the lad that the objects were in all probability some sort of Army or Navy test planes from the nearby test centers on the deserts of Southern California.”

After the objects had passed over, Rankin went inside for lunch. About two hours later, he returned to the yard to sit in the shade, and he again saw the objects, this time only seven of them, and this time flying south.

Flying FlapjackA few weeks later, Rankin was in Portland, Oregon when he saw “all the hullabaloo in the papers.” He thought he might be able to clear up the mystery, so he told his story to the Portland Oregonian.  “I puzzled over their strange shape for a while and finally concluded that they were the Navy’s new XF5U-1, flying flapjacks which are thin and round, with twin propellers and stubby tail.”[14] Newspapers around the country pictures of the new aircraft, suggesting the Flapjack to the most likely explanation for the mystery discs, until the Navy pointed out that it had only one such plane. Rankin did not know that Navy’s so-called Flying-Flapjack had been a flop. Only two were ever built, they never flew, and by March 17, 1947, the Navy cancelled the project and sent the prototype to the Smithsonian.

zimmerman-1940-patent

Rankin’s sighting correlated well with the description of Arnold’s objects, but in Rankin’s case, “they were not weaving or bobbing in formation.”[15]

Later review of the file under Air Material Command offered a skeptical assessment: “There is no information in this report to refute the assumption that these objects were ordinary aircraft beyond the range of identification.” The case file indicates that no one else in Bakersfield reported the formation. A second opinion in the Blue Book files concludes that Rankin might have seen birds. Neither explanation seems satisfactory.

A corollary note on the Rankin story is that he was not the first resident of Bakersfield, California to see a flyover. Mrs. C. W. Parks of reported that from her home she saw “flying saucers” passing in a southeasterly direction on June 1.[16]

Radically Built and Powered

Oklahoma City, May 1947

Many of the early sightings might have conventional explanations, but the claim of an Oklahoma City man named Byron B. Savage proved hard to dismiss. In mid-May of 1947, thirty-eight-year-old Savage of Oklahoma City saw an object pass overhead which he could not explain. Savage was a private pilot who had held a pilot’s certificate since 1934 and had been flying planes since 1929. Although he possessed education and experience in electronics, sound engineering, and aeronautics, he could not identify the aircraft he saw that night.

“I was standing out in my front yard at the time, about dusk, with a little sunlight still in the sky, and a flat, disc-like object came across the city from just a little east of south and was gone in about four or five seconds,” he told the June 26 Oklahoma City Times. The AP wire service disseminated the story broadly—one of the first to catch national attention after the initial story about Arnold’s sighting. The news story also caught the attention of officials at Tinker Field, the local Air Force Base in Oklahoma City. An officer was dispatched to investigate the story and conduct an interview. He met with the Savage family in their Oklahoma City residence on July 24.[17]

Savage told the security officer that he and his wife had just left their home and were entering their car in the driveway when he saw the object. The sighting occurred sometime between 8:30 and 9:00 PM, the sun had already set, the moon had not yet risen, and the city lights seemed to reflect from the surface of the object when he first saw it. He remarked to his wife, “A big white plane is coming over!” He called her attention to the object, but by the time she looked up, searching the sky, the object was already passing out of sight, and she was unable to fix her eyes on it. She suggested that he had merely seen a lightning flash of some sort.

A flat, disc-like object came across the city from just a little east of south and was gone in about four or five seconds … as it went by he heard nothing at all.

Savage knew that it was not lightning, a meteor, or any other type of natural astronomical phenomenon. As the craft passed over him, he also realized it was not a conventional aircraft. It appeared elliptical as it approached, but as it drew closer, he saw that it was round and flat, disc-shaped, possibly thicker in the center, and quite large. It had no protrusions. He claimed the object appeared to be six times the size of a B-29 bomber and moving at a speed approximately three times that of a jet. He guessed that the altitude might have been between 10,000 and 18,000 feet. The entire sighting lasted less than fifteen to twenty seconds.

Savage told the papers, “The machine, or whatever it was, was a shiny, silvery color—very big—and was moving at a terrific rate of speed.” To the security officer, he described it as “frosty white.” The silence of the flight baffled him. He said, “The funny thing about it was that it made no noise. I don’t think it had any kind of internal combustion engine.” He told the security officer that he listened for a sound of noise as it went by but he heard nothing at all. A few seconds after the object had passed, he thought he might have heard a faint swishing sound in the air, but he could not be certain if he had or if he had merely imagined it in the expectation of some type of sound from such a large, fast-moving aircraft.

After the incident, Savage told some other pilots about what he had seen, but they expressed skepticism. “I kept quiet after that—until I read about that man seeing nine of the same things.” When he saw the Kenneth Arnold story just six weeks after his own unexplained encounter, he immediately went to the press. Mrs. Savage told the newspaper, “He was very much worked up about it when he read about the man in Washington.”

Savage explained why he had decided to report the sighting.  “I saw it and I thought it only fair to back him [Arnold] up … I know that boy up there really saw them.”

The Project Blue Book file on the case classifies it under the category of “insufficient information” but nevertheless suggests that Savage saw a bolide meteor. Nothing about the description seems consistent with that explanation. Savage himself told the Air Force investigator that he was certain that it was not a meteor. Instead, he believed he had seen some type of advanced aircraft “radically built and powered—possibly atomic.”

Possible Birds

Manitou Springs, Colorado, May 19, 1947

When the Kenneth Arnold story appeared in the papers, several railroad workers made a report to the Denver Post about a similar encounter they had more than a month earlier.  Their sighting took place at Manitou Springs, Colorado on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. This historic railway, built solely for the purpose of hauling tourists up and down Zebulon Pike’s namesake mountain,  began at the base of the mountain in the city of Manitou Springs and climbed 8,000 feet to the summit. On or about May 19, 1947, while seven employees of the railway took a lunch break, one of them noticed a bright, silver-colored object in the clear and cloudless sky approaching from the northeast. It appeared to be travelling at great speed. He called attention to the incoming object, and the other six members of the crew saw it too. The shiny silver object approached on a straight course, but on reaching the area just North of Manitou Mountain, the object began to move erratically, executing wide circles by climbing, diving, and reversing flight direction every few seconds. At times the object seemed to hover before starting a new flight path. All the while it reflected light, like polished metal, albeit intermittently as if catching the reflection of the sun at certain angles. “The distance and location between views prompted two of the men to think that there were more of the unidentified objects in the sky.”[18] The object appeared small to them, but without a frame of reference, they could not determine if the object only appeared to be small because it was actually quite far away. Likewise, they could not begin to estimate its height, although it was at very least higher than Manitou Mountain, the peak of which rose one thousand feet above them. Despite the erratic maneuvers, the crew heard no engine or jet noise at any time. The crew tried viewing the object through binoculars, but the magnification did not seem to bring the object any closer, nor were they able to focus to discern any clear idea of it shape. They only knew that the object they were viewing was not a modern, conventional aircraft. The seven-man crew watched the airshow for twenty minutes, after which the silver object made a very climb towards the west-northwest, almost directly into the wind, disappearing into the clear blue sky.

The shiny silver object … reflected light, like polished metal, albeit intermittently as if catching the reflection of the sun at certain angles.

The men did not report the strange phenomenon until they saw Arnold’s story in the papers. They approached the local press, and the June 28 Denver Post printed an account of their sighting along with their names. The next day, the Post reported that investigators from the Fifteenth Air Force Headquarters interviewed the men about the incident.[19]

Counter Intelligence Corps Personnel questioned three of the men. Whether the Air Force initiated the interview or not remains unclear. The three men might have felt they were doing their patriotic duty by bringing the matter to the attention of the local military authorities. A July 2 summary of information report from that interview titled “Supersonic Platters” made its way to Strategic Air Command in Washington DC and ultimately into the Project Blue Book files.[20] The Air Force analysts assigned to the files are notorious for dismissing even the most compelling sightings with weak speculation and forced explanations. In this case, one analyst cavalierly dismissed the sighting with two words: “Possible birds.”[21] The full version of the Blue Book files offers a more serious assessment:

There is no astronomical explanation for this incident; the reversal of direction of flight and the maneuvers executed by the object preclude this. The speed is not stated with exactness, but if it was not too great, the object might have been a balloon, or aircraft seen under unusual conditions. Otherwise, there appears to be no plausible explanation.[22]


Read the whole story of the 1947 UFO Wave, “Flying Saucers 1947.” 

[1] Edward J. Ruppelt, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects: The Original 1956 Edition (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2011), 41.
[2] Martin L. Slough, “A New Study of British ‘Ghost Aeroplanes’ of 1947” NARCAP (National Aviation Reporting Centre on Anomalous Phenomena). Online: http://martinshough.com/aerialphenomena/opcharlie.pdf
[3] Ted Bloecher, Report on the UFO Wave of 1947 (University of Updated Version 2005, National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena; originally published 1967), x.
[4] Ibid., I.1.
[5] Cameron Pack, Restored Project Blue Book UFO Files: June 1947 & Before (Cameron Pack, 2013). File Number 2, Incident 79.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ann Druffel, Firestorm: Dr. James E. McDonald’s Fight for UFO Science (Columbus, NC: Wildflower Press, 2003), 131–133.
[8] Ruppelt, 70-71.
[9] Air Intelligence Report No. 100-203-79, Analysis of Flying Object Incidents in the US, Air Intelligence Division Study No. 203, 28 April 1949, Directorate of Intelligence and Office of Naval Intelligence. Online: http://www.project1947.com/fig/1948air.htm
[10] Edward J. Ruppelt, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects: The Original 1956 Edition (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2011), 41.
[11]  Case 25-26, Cameron Pack, Restored Project Blue Book UFO Files: June 1947 & Before, File 12, Incident 29.
[12] “Plane Vet Reports Seeing ‘Flying Saucers’ June 23,” Denver Post, July 2, 1947, clipping in Blue Book 12.
[13] Blue Book 12 Statement re RANKIN, dated July 30, 1947, Portland, Oregon.
[14] “Pilot Recalls Seeing Discs” The Oregonian, Portland, Oregon Thursday, July 3, 1947, clipping in Cameron Pack, Restored Project Blue Book UFO Files: June 1947 & Before, File 12, Incident 29.
[15] Ibid.
[16] “‘Flying Saucer’ Observers Report Bakersfield Quota,” The Bakersfield Californian, July 7, 2914.
[17] Cameron Pack, Restored Project Blue Book UFO Files: June 1947 & Before (Cameron Pack, 2013). File Number 5, Incident 82.
[18] File Number 6
[19] Bloecher I.1
[20] File Number 6
[21] James McDonald reported finding that explanation in the Blue Book Files he saw. Bloecher I.1.
[22] File Number 6

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